BAY CITY, MI — Former Bay County Circuit Judge William J. “Bill” Caprathe knew the value of balancing his work life with his family time. A dedicated mediator even after retiring from the bench more than 10 years ago, Caprathe was also a frequent world-traveler, alternating trips with his wife and with their extended family.
“His whole life was law and his family,” said his widow, Linda Caprathe, a statement her late husband himself told The Bay City Times upon his retirement in 2010.
The former judge died at home on Saturday, Aug. 15, surrounded by his wife, children, and grandchildren. He was 81.
“Before he passed, he wanted to keep reiterating, ‘We had a great life, Linda. It’s been a great adventure,’” she said, adding the couple had their 43rd wedding anniversary two days before his death. “I think he held on just for that. It was a very nice, quiet day that day, with just the kids and grandkids. Father Dale Orlik visited and had him laughing.”
Bill Caprathe retired as a Bay County Circuit Court judge in 2010 at age 71. His age prevented him from running for reelection, as judges cannot start a new term past the age of 70 in Michigan.
Hailing from Detroit, he received his bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University and his Juris Doctorate from the Detroit College of Law, currently the Michigan State University College of Law. Admitted to the Michigan State Bar in 1965, he began his law career practicing as a solo practitioner in the Detroit area for 10 years. He then moved north and worked in the Bay County Public Defender’s Office.
In 1980, he ran for an open spot as a circuit judge and won, starting his first term in 1981. He went on to win four more six-year terms.
After retiring, Caprathe ran a private mediation service in Bay City and sat in as a visiting judge as needed in jurisdictions around the state. He was also a national arbitrator with Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), a member of the Professional Resolution Experts of Michigan, a mediator with Michigan Judicial Alternative Dispute Resolution, P.C. (MI-JADR), and a commissioner with the State Appellate Defender Office and Criminal Defense Resource Center (SADO).
He had open-heart surgery in November 2018, something which took a lot out of him, his widow continued.
“The thing is, he was still working,” she said. “He worked all last year, since he was released from rehab. He worked up until four weeks ago, still doing Zoom mediations. Physically, Zoom was the best thing for him.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, things slowed down for him and he ended up closing his mediation office at 1610 S. Euclid Ave. in Bay City.
His heart issues seemed to spiral out of control in recent weeks, his widow said.
Before that, though, the couple and their family traveled around the country and the world.
“We took all the children and grandchildren to Disney World every other year,” Linda Caprathe said. “We went to Europe several times — Italy, Germany, Greece, France, England.”
In 2010 or 2011, the couple went on a tour of the International Court of Justice, visiting The Hague and Belgium.
“We went on a month-long, World War II tour,” she said. “Nuremberg, that was probably the hardest for us. At the Holocaust museum, we could not physically, emotionally continue. We cried and cried and cried through that whole thing, both of us. We just had to get up and leave; it was too emotional for us.”
The couple also visited Sicily several times, where Bill Caprathe’s father was from.
“Our last trip was to Italy and Greece in October 2018,” Linda Caprathe said. “We got back from the trip and that’s when he went into the hospital. We didn’t know he had a heart condition until then. I’m so glad we were able to make that trip together. It had been planned for quite a while.”
One of their best trips, or adventures as she described it, was to Alaska.
Bill Caprathe was also an avid sports fan and “armchair coach.” He spent a lot of time with his 12 grandkids, going to their sporting events and activities.
“He just adored his grandkids,” Linda Caprathe said. “He was like that, that kind of man. Very kind, very compassionate and when you spoke with him — and he was like this no matter if you were an adult or a child — he really listened and knew how to communicate with everybody. Our grandkids were just crazy about him. Even when he was so sick and could barely lift his hand, they were right there. He was their Papa. He never hesitated to get on the ground and play with them or swim with them or fish with them.
“He knew how to balance his life. He enjoyed every bit of it.”
The couple is survived by their three children, Julia Caprathe-York, Joseph Caprathe, and Jacquelyn Caprathe. Julia followed her father into the law and currently works as a juvenile public defender in Bay County. Joseph and his wife own a candy store in Mattawan, Michigan, and works at an area hospital. Jacquelyn lives in Rockford and a business development manager for an international company based in Grand Rapids.
“He certainly was a great influence on my decision to practice law and go to law school,” said Julia Caprathe of her father. “He definitely led by example. He was very committed to equality and justice for everyone who came before him. He lived those principles in his daily life as well, on the bench and in his personal life. That commitment was very inspiring to me. He always aimed to be neutral and hear all sides of a story. He taught me that, taught all of us that, not to jump to conclusions, but to hear all sides.”
She added her dad “really lived with courage and he taught us that as well. Sometimes, even now practicing law, you have to sometimes be brave and go against the grain. He really encouraged me to stand on what I know or believe to be the right course of action. That was something I really did get from him.”
Caprathe’s successor to the bench is current Bay County Circuit Court Judge Harry P. Gill.
“Bill Caprathe was very dedicated to improving our system of justice,” Gill said. “He was compassionate to those who came before him. He was a scholar who contributed to many important innovations that have improved our system of justice. Most importantly, Judge Caprathe was a good and decent man who always strove to do the right thing. He was my friend and I shall miss him dearly, as will our justice system.”
“He was a fine judge and a wonderful man,” added Circuit Judge Joseph K. Sheeran. “Our sympathy goes out to his family. I am grateful to have been his friend and colleague. Sitting at his desk, I am mindful of his great compassion, courage, and service.”
When he retired from his judgeship, Bill Caprathe told The Bay City Times he always viewed his each case or trial he presided over as a learning experience.
“Over and over, you get the opportunity to replay the situation,” he said at the time. “Next time you do it, you do it a little bit better.”
Through it all, Bill Caprathe viewed life as an adventure.
“I think he looked at life like that every day,” Linda Caprathe said. “Every moment is worth living, loving, and giving your best.”
The Funeral Mass is to take place at 10 a.m. on Thursday, Aug. 20, at All Saints Parish–Church of St. Boniface, 510 N Lincoln St. in Bay City. Visitation will be at the Trahan Funeral Chapel, 256 N. Madison Ave., from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 19, and at the church starting at 9 a.m. Thursday.
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